ATHENS – Georgia has survived the Great Suspension Plague of 2012.
While no one is still coming right out and saying as much, we know from outside testimony, school policies, indirect hints and good old-fashioned horse sense that star linebacker Alec Ogletree and All-American free safety Bacarri Rambo are returning from four-game suspensions this week. And they’re getting back just in the nick of time as next on the dance card is Tennessee and its high-octane offense.
Ogletree and Rambo are the last two of four defensive starters that were missing for the Bulldogs this first part of the season as a result of internal team discipline. Cornerback Sanders Commings and outside linebacker Chase Vasser were benched two games each for off-season arrests.
Retrospectively, some might say that there was no great challenge there; that it was only Missouri, Vanderbilt, Buffalo and Florida Atlantic and that the Bulldogs should have been able to handle them with four starters out. But nobody could have foreseen what the Tigers and Commodores would present heading into the season. And the book is still out on how good or bad Georgia’s first two SEC opponents are.
What we do know is Georgia, now ranked No. 5 and undefeated at 4-0, came through the ordeal unscathed. And it was a lot harder than it looked.
Not only did coach Todd Grantham have to get inexperienced players ready to play major roles — including converting receiver Malcolm Mitchell into a starting boundary corner — but he had to do so while also repping the suspended players in to the mix and making sure they stayed sharp.
“That’s probably been the most difficult thing,” said Grantham, in his third season as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. “You’ve got to look at developing guys and have a vision as the season goes along getting your best guys on the field. At the same time you have to get some young guys ready to play this moment. So it’s a balancing act between preparing guys to play the game and do well in the game and continuing to develop guys who maybe weren’t playing for whatever reason. That’s been the challenge. I think we’ve done a pretty good job with it. Now we’ll try to continue to develop guys and play the best ones available.”
Now comes Phase II of the transition. Phase I, bringing back Commings and Vasser, was relatively smooth. Commings spoke of being a little rusty in his first game back at free safety in more than a year. But the secondary part of the Phase II would appear fairly simple. The Bulldogs will merely plug in their All-American back at free safety and Commings will roll back in at boundary corner, where he belongs.
The linebacker part of the equation is not quite as easy. First of all, the player that has been playing Ogletree’s “Mo” inside linebacker position — Amarlo Herrera — has been doing so at a high level. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound sophomore from College Park leads the team and is ninth in the SEC with 30 tackles. He also has a couple of tackles for loss, two pass break-ups and an interception return for a touchdown.
“I’ve been doing pretty good,” Herrera said with a grin.
But Ogletree (6-3, 232) brings another whole element to the position. He’s faster, rangier and more of an up-field pressure threat. The combination of him on the inside and Jarvis Jones on the outside — with Big John Jenkins in the middle — is problematic for offenses.
For his part, Herrera says he’ll take whatever comes.
“That’s tricky because you know Tree’s going to play,” Herrera said. “He has to. He’s a great player.”
Said senior Christian Robinson, who splits time between both the “Mo” and “Mike” positions: “The way it worked last season is we had five different guys at inside linebacker all playing. I could see that happening again. It’s basically just the next guy in. You can’t win the whole season with 11 guys. You need a lot of guys to contribute. I imagine we’ll continue to rotate and we’ll have a bunch of hungry guys ready to make plays.”
Georgia’s defense hasn’t stunk without its full complement of players, but neither has it been the dominant unit everyone expected. The Bulldogs enter Saturday’s game against Tennessee ranked 7th in the SEC in points allowed (16.5 ppg) , 8th in total defense (343.2 ypg) and 8th against the rush (135.5 ypg).
The prospect of a deep and motivated inside linebacker corps has to excite the Bulldogs and certainly must unsettle Georgia’s opponents. And with the pass-happy Vols coming to town, it certainly is a relief to be back at full strength.
“I think as we move forward it will give us a little bit of depth,” Grantham said. He, too, was smiling.
MORE ON GEORGIA FOOTBALL